The American Jewish Story Through Cinema, the latest book from author/scholar Eric A. Goldman, is a difficult work to evaluate, primarily because Goldman is quite proficient in one sense (contextualizing the development and production of American Jewish stories/films within Hollywood cinema) and wholly deficient in another (offering a critical lens from which to form nuanced considerations). When presented with these problems, the deficiencies inevitably outweigh the proficiencies, because even the adept historicizing is tainted by a sense that what’s being presented merely gets at the surface of these complex issues. Moreover, Goldman has written an academic book that’s constructed in such a basic, often needlessly explanatory manner, that one cannot help conclude his ultimate aim is less an appeal to academics seeking a thorough, methodologically rigorous framework, than a more biographically inclined reader, whose interest lies purely in the historical context within which the chosen films of study were produced.
In other words, Goldman’s approach is fairly banal and repetitive, playing the role of a silently enthusiastic historian, rather than a discerning, hands-on theorist. The book, divided into seven chapters with each presenting a case study or two, examines various films that have represented the American Jewish experience, whether focusing on the struggles of assimilation into American society or offering Jewish characters that “take on America.” Among the former are The Jazz Singer (1927), Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), and Crossfire (1947), while the latter shifts to more recent decades with discussions of The Way We Were (1973), Avalon (1990), and Everything Is Illuminated (2005). Goldman approaches an examination of each film in approximately the same manner: background information of genesis/pre-production issues, followed by a close reading of each film. However, the close-readings fail to compel because Goldman lacks an entry point beyond the fact that each film represents the Jewish American experience. That’s the gist of each analysis. For example, Goldman writes of The Way We Were and The Prince of Tides (1991): “In both films, the Jewish woman is strong, educated, multitalented, and successful in her own way as she takes on America.” Goldman is attempting to explain how the films allow Jewish characters to retain cultural heritage while simultaneously absorbing themselves within the American milieu, but the depth of those statements is lacking; Goldman simply states those qualities as such, rather than finding ways, through his prose, to make these dilemmas less binary oppositions than multi-faceted dilemmas. Speaking of Barbra Streisand, Goldman writes: “[She’s] a star performer, one of the most talented artists off our day.” The suggestion in such a vague, pronoun-confused assertion is that Goldman lacks the ability to specify exactly how this is so.
In addition to these kinds of nominal statements, the book uniformly lacks a critical dimension. That is, Goldman scarcely offers any kind of negative or problematizing element, beyond the attempted suppression of Jewish-specific content from studio heads. As such, the strongest chapter deals with Gentleman’s Agreement and Crossfire, each of which faced uphill internal studio struggles to enter production, much less become successful films. Gentleman’s Agreement is the first film to have ever taken up anti-Semitism as a central theme; however, the film went on to win the Best Picture Oscar. Likewise, each film had a fierce producer backing the project; for Gentleman’s Agreement, it was social-issues-minded Darryl Zanuck and for Crossfire producer Dore Schary at RKO relentlessly argued for its worth. Surprisingly, each film was met with resistance from the Jewish community, who felt such representations could do more harm than good. However insightfully historicized the films are by Goldman, his explanatory prose often fails and is, at times, somewhat clunky. He explains near the beginning of the discussion that “making a movie about this social problem could be highly explosive,” and ends the chapter with: “The releases of Crossfire and Gentleman’s Agreement and the battles that surrounded them were part of a coming of age for America’s Jews.” These rather pat, obvious sorts of statements bookend a discussion that lacks dynamism beyond some surprising historical revelations, the same of which could be said for the bulk of each chapter—informative, but dyadic.
Presumably, these simple terms are meant as a gesture to readers unfamiliar with academic writing. Most peculiarly, Goldman decides to devote a portion of his chapter on Avalon to a visual analysis of the film. However, instead of proceeding, he explains: “A clear visual analysis, examining how the filmmaker crafts a powerful statement through use of images, is often overlooked when cinema is used in a historical context.” Furthermore, he defines mise-en-scène as “a visual representation of ideas and themes, as well as the positioning and editing of those themes.” In even the most basic sort of content-driven film review, the transition to a discussion of visual style doesn’t necessitate a definition of visual style! Yet, Goldman does so here, a gesture which indicates he may not only be writing to readers not versed in academic film studies, but, perhaps, not versed in the very basic parameters of filmic elements. Thus, his decision to simply applaud each film as an expression of American-Jewish experience, rather than offer potentially critical takes on how each film represents those experiences, negates a potential for revelation beyond the historical sort.
Eric A. Goldman’s The American Jewish Story Through Cinema was released on April 15 by University of Texas Press; to purchase it, click here.